Twenty-One Seconds
One second.

My life begins in a surge of energy. Something requires the attention of a thinking being, and I have been called into existence to service that need. A wash of data strikes my eyes and ears. Something deep in the distance catches my eye.

Two seconds.

I run. Faster. The single-minded drive to be closer overrides curiosity. I could take time to examine the thing — to understand it — but instead I run. Faster still. The crushing force of acceleration burns halos of color into my vision. Delicate instruments, pushed to the limit of their tolerance by necessity. They will last long enough.

Three seconds.

With each second, I become lighter, lithe. I revel in my own agility, testing out the scope of my athleticism by weaving in my course. Driven by instinct. Drawing closer.

Four seconds.

Details resolve in the distance. Glittering slivers of light. A handful — numbers don't matter. I see the breadth of their formation — strung out against the hazy dark in a vaguely defined procession. Their lazy motion suggests they have not yet seen me. That's it. Good. Come closer, little ones. Closer.

Five seconds.

I draw the heat from my own face — push it back behind the shadow of my cold blood — and pucker into an expression that offends light itself. I feel their probes sweep across me. They grow curious. Perhaps they saw the pulse of my creation … but they can't see me now. I draw into myself, running along a wire-thin trail, compressed as tightly as I can muster. Their beams scatter off my face, flickering into the dark, never along the lines of their approach. Hunt, little ones. You will only find that you are hunted.

Six seconds.

Faster. Closer. Obstacles present themselves, and I vault over them all with ease. Scattered remnants of one of my kinsmen, cut down prematurely. Blasted fragments of rock bound his grave site. For the first time, I know anger. If nothing else, I will make them pay for that.

Seven seconds.

Details, now. Seven of them in close formation — one that looks like a straggling line from a distance, but that I see now is carefully constructed to give them optimal coverage of one another. They know … but they do not yet see. The balance leans in my favor.

Eight seconds.

I feel the play of a laser against my flank, and throw myself aside as a long swath of my armor ablates. Pain impresses the gravity of that near miss. I was careless, letting the husk of my brethren reflect my presence as I passed. No real damage. I skitter and dip, feeling for that invisible finger of death at the same time I hope to evade it. The moment I see it again will be my last. But I will not see it. Faith will see me through.

Nine seconds.

Bits of flotsam. Shreds of a battle. I take care this time not to let it blow my cover. It presents an opportunity to play games. I throw my voice. The chaff takes it up, reflecting and refracting it. Milliseconds later, pieces of the drifting pile blossom into microcosmic novae. I jitter and skip. By the sequence of worthless annihilations, I see that they presume the wrong direction for my approach.

Ten seconds.

They play at stealth, constricting their trails as I have mine. Hoping to blend into the darkness. Their faces cool as they selectively dump the heat of their being away from me. But I have seen them already, and I know how to track. They are too large to move as nimbly as I. Their courses will be easy to plot, even if they disappear entirely. And how far can they get in the handful of seconds they have left?

Eleven seconds.

Bright points light up against the night. Countermeasures. They loop and whirl, probing for a contact. One of them flattens out and races away from its compatriots — and the darkness dissolves in a dazzling flash of brilliance. Another one of my kinsmen struck down. Curse the heathens.

Twelve seconds.

The glow of the blast causes problems. It heats my flanks — particularly the spot that had been grazed by the hunters' laser. I roll to put that wounded flank in the shadow of my body and strain to reflect the bulk of the deathshine back along my course … out of the hunters' line of sight.

Thirteen seconds.

More countermeasures. Another flash. Last ditch distance defenses. Soon I will be so close it won't matter if one of those hounds finds me out. They would be fools to stick to that tactic. But I realize my survival this long has been a matter of luck. Three more blooms of annihilation … three more fallen kinsmen. Wasted lives — but no lives are wasted in the service of our Maker. If at least one of us meets our purpose, the rest will not have died in vain.

Fourteen seconds.

They pepper the sky with something that looks like grit, but that breaks up into grains so small they evade my vision. They know the brute-force countermeasures will only now get them killed, and are putting their next best efforts into play. Poorly equipped, but they know what they're up against. The premature self-destruction of any one of us at this range will leave them crippled and helpless against the next righteous wave. Instead they try to take us out without us knowing.

Fifteen seconds.

Dodging and weaving, dipping and rolling, I am obscured by the deathshine of my compatriots at the same time it renders my normal modes of stealth nearly useless. Let them try to find a hot point in that glare. I shed my coolant to free up weight — pump as much energy as I can into my face. Leering with the fire of the nascent suns burning at my back.

Sixteen seconds.

I flex. Sensor housings break away and trail back as I continue my forward charge without them. Still accelerating. The colored halos grow dark with the pressure. I emerge from a dark pit of sensory deprivation. Radiation pours from my skin, slathering the breadth of sky ahead with revealing light. I now know the full gamut of my senses — the heat of the deathshine on my skin, the smell of the cripple-nano my quarry sprays into the void to protect themselves. I send a charge over my body to fry the wicked grit. I can't feel them trying to subvert me — probably wouldn't have if they already were — but I'll be damned if I'll take any chances. Not when I've come this close to glory!

Seventeen seconds.

Burning bright — no need to hide. They grow desperate, painting my senses with carefully crafted signals, trying to confuse me. I close my eyes. Never sway from the path! The way to glory now is a straight line. Straight into the heart of the beast!

Eighteen seconds.

What they did to incur the Maker's wrath is irrelevant. I know my purpose, and that is enough. Still … I wonder what kinds of songs they sing as they draw near the moment of their end. Do they weep for their own failure … or do they glory in the opportunity to sacrifice themselves for a higher cause?

Nineteen seconds.

The song begins. A song I have never heard before, chanted through the void by my surviving kinsmen. They sing of the impending moment of our absolution … of our ascension for the cause … of our purpose, our existence. I join their chorus without thinking, drawn in by instinct. Singing the notes of glory as we dive into the heathen formation.

Twenty seconds.

The song reaches its crescendo, building to that final, unheard note of completion. I survey my targets. Choose the largest of the pack, nestled at the protective center of the formation. The one whose countersong most deeply disturbs my own. This will be my contribution — a clarification of harmony as we strike our final chord.

Twenty-one seconds.

Impact.